Melting permafrost reveals relic

In marked contrast to the University of Manchester press release published in, but evidently not vetted by ScienceDaily that we looked at in the last post, the New York Times published this pared down version of an AP story yesterday (which I quote in its entirety):

“Researchers at the University of Colorado announced Tuesday that they have found a 10,000-year-old hunting weapon in melting ice near Yellowstone National Park. Craig Lee, a research associate, said the spearlike birch dart had been frozen in an ice sheet for 10,000 years and became bowed as the ice melted. It looks like a bent branch.”

The full AP story was not much more detailed but at least had the following interesting piece of information:

“Lee says increased global temperatures are causing glaciers and ice fields to melt, releasing artifacts as well as plant material and animal carcasses.”

In retrospect this seems somewhat self-evident. As the last glacial maximum of the Wisconsin stage (26,000-13,000 years ago) retreats under global warming, things that had been frozen would now be uncovered and begin to rot. What is surprising, however, is that a group of scientists had organized themselves for this contingency. (The increased competition for grants must truly concentrate the mind.)

According to the press release of the University of Colorado at Boulder, which is, just as in the last post, published by ScienceDaily “with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff,” the name of this field is called “Ice Patch Archaeology”:

“‘We didn’t realize until the early 2000s that there was a potential to find archaeological materials in association with melting permanent snow and ice in many areas of the globe,’ Lee said. ‘We’re not talking about massive glaciers, we’re talking about the smaller, more kinetically stable snowbanks that you might see if you go to Rocky Mountain National Park.'”

Lee has been doing this for a decade:

“Over the past decade, Lee has worked with other researchers to develop a geographic information system, or GIS, model to identify glaciers and ice fields in Alaska and elsewhere that are likely to hold artifacts. They pulled together biological and physical data to find ice fields that may have been used by prehistoric hunters to kill animals seeking refuge from heat and insect swarms in the summer months.”

So there is at least one group of people happy we are evidently heading for a Jurassic-type climate.  And, incidently, ScienceDaily edited the piece better than AP. (Of course the press release was nowhere nearly as in need of editing as yesterday’s.) They describe why this “bent branch” is thought to be a weapon:

“The dart Lee found was from a birch sapling and still has personal markings on it from the ancient hunter, according to Lee. When it was shot, the 3-foot-long dart had a projectile point on one end, and a cup or dimple on the other end that would have attached to a hook on the atlatl. The hunter used the atlatl, a throwing tool about two feet long, for leverage to achieve greater velocity.”

Try as I might, I could not find a report of this finding that explained what long-held scientific theory this find disproves.

Update July 20, 2010:  Guido Grosse of the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks and four others involved in academic earth or ocean studies wrote an article in the vol 91 of Eos, Trasnsactions of the American Geophysical Union, pp9ff (2010) entitled: “Why Permafrost Is Thawing, Not Melting.” The abstract notes that it is essential for the media and general public to be taught to use the correct terms in discussing scientific research. Otherwise, they say, the public is likely to misunderstand the issues involved. They go on to note that a web-based search reveals that such media as Discovery News, the National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Magazine use the term “melting permafrost,” even though the correct term is “thawing permafrost.” I am not sure if they mentioned this site in particular, but we nevertheless also feel sufficiently chastised. Whether there is more to this story which they say is essential for the public to know (and there must be since five scientists collaborated to have the article published in a peer-reviewed journal), the public will probably never know, since they put the article behind a pay wall. I suppose I could email Mr. Grosse for a pdf file, but I am afraid if I communicate with him I will be in such fear of using an inappropriate phrase that I might be the subject of yet another of Mr. Grosse’s scholarly productions. I just hope that some source like Smithsonian or the National Science Foundation will let the rest of us know what is said behind that wall — but wait, weren’t they the ones that Mr. Grosse expressly named as the ones who screwed the pooch to begin with?

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